NACCHO health news: The role of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services in Indigenous health


“Our right to take back responsibility.” Noel Pearson, 2000 [1]

This emotive aphorism by Pearson embodies the struggle of Australia’s Indigenous people to gain control of their destiny, which for generations has been wrested from them into the power of governments.

Although his statement was primarily directed toward welfare, the same right of responsibility can be applied to health, perhaps the gravest challenge facing the Aboriginal population.

Article by: Michael Weightman
Sixth Year Medicine (Undergraduate)
University of Adelaide

As Pearson alluded to, the only way to solve the health crisis is by enabling local communities to take charge of their own affairs.

This principle of self-determination has led to the creation of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHS), which has allowed over 150 Aboriginal communities throughout Australia control over their healthcare. [2] This article describes the founding principles behind community controlled health centres in Aboriginal communities through considering several different ACCHS and the unique challenges they face.

The fundamental concept behind each ACCHS – whether metropolitan, rural or remote – is the establishment of a primary healthcare facility that is both built and run by the local Aboriginal people “to deliver holistic, comprehensive, and culturally appropriate health care to the community which controls it.” [2] This is based upon the principle of self-determination and grants local people the power to achieve their own goals. From the beginning ACCHS were always intended to be more than exclusively a healthcare centre and each ACCHS has four key roles: the provision of primary clinical care, community support, special needs programmes, and advocacy.

ACCHS endeavour to provide primary healthcare as enshrined by the World Health Organization in the 1978 Declaration of Alma-Ata. This landmark international conference defined primary healthcare as:

“essential health care based on practical, scientifically sound and socially acceptable methods and technology made universally accessible to individuals and families in the community through their full participation and at a cost that the community and the country can afford to maintain… in the spirit of self-determination.” [3]

Although conceived subsequent to the advent of the community controlled healthcare movement in Australia, this definition echoes many of the underlying principles upon which ACCHS were founded, including the most important aspect – local control. Indeed, it is widely accepted throughout the literature that the community itself must identify its needs and problems so an effective and appropriate course of action can be undertaken. [4-7]

This principle is espoused in the National Aboriginal Health Strategy’s frequently quoted statement that “Aboriginal health is not just the physical well-being of an individual but the social, emotional and cultural well-being of the whole community in which each individual is able to achieve their full potential thereby bringing about the total well-being of their community.” [8] The notion of ‘community’ is an essential component of the Indigenous view of the self and therefore strongly related to health and well-being. Accordingly, ACCHS have a holistic view of healthcare, recognising that Indigenous healthcare needs to be multi-faceted and focus on cultural complexities that may not be appreciated by mainstream health services. As each Aboriginal community across the country has a distinct culture and language, [9] local control is paramount.

The concept of community control is not new. It can be traced back to early nineteenth-century America, where such services were used with success for improving the health of the poor and recent migrants. [4] The first ACCHS was established in the inner city Sydney suburb of Redfern in 1971. [10] Known as the Aboriginal Medical Service (AMS), it pioneered the concept of community controlled healthcare in Australia and, from modest beginnings, has now expanded into a major, versatile healthcare facility that provides free medical, dental, psychological, antenatal and drug and alcohol services to the large Aboriginal community in Sydney. Redfern’s AMS overcame struggles against an initially distrustful and paternalistic government through the dedication of visionary Indigenous leaders and support of benevolent non-Indigenous Australians. [10,11]

Specialised Indigenous policies are essential, as it is impossible to apply the same approach that is used in health services for non-Indigenous patients. Many Indigenous people are uncomfortable with seeking medical help at hospitals or general practices and therefore are reluctant to obtain essential care. [12] In addition, access to healthcare is often extremely difficult due to either geographical isolation or lack of transportation. Many Indigenous people live below the poverty line, so the services provided by practices that do not bulk bill are unattainable. Mainstream services struggle to provide appropriate healthcare to Aboriginal patients due to significant cultural and language disparities; [5,13] the establishment of ACCHS attempts to overcome such challenges.

For example, the Inala Indigenous Health Service in south-west Brisbane performed extensive market research to determine the factors keeping Aboriginal patients from utilising the mainstream health service. The results showed that several simple measures were highly effective in engaging the local community, such as employing an Indigenous receptionist and making the waiting room more culturally appropriate through local art or broadcasting an Aboriginal radio station. [12] In the five years following implementation of these strategies, the number of Indigenous patients at Inala ballooned from 12 to 899, and an average of four consultations per patient per year was attained, compared to the national Indigenous average of fewer than two. [14] A follow-up survey attributed patient satisfaction to the presence of Indigenous staff and a focus on Indigenous health. [12]

Nevertheless, the consequence of  longstanding obstacles to Indigenous access to mainstream healthcare is manifest in the stark inequity between the health outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The most recent data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) shows that the discrepancy in life expectancy between Aboriginal Australians and their non-Indigenous counterparts remains unacceptably high, at 11.5 years for males and 9.7 for females. [15] Moreover, studies demonstrate that Aboriginal people have significantly worse outcomes in key health indicators, including infant mortality, diabetes, heart disease, infectious disease and mental illness. [5,12,13,16] Such disparities indicate that a novel, tailored approach to Indigenous health is required.

Cultural understanding is essential, as demonstrated by the example of the Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation in the Northern Territory. Anyinginyi serves the twelve remote Aboriginal communities within a 100km radius of Tennant Creek and its name comes from the local Warumungu language, meaning ‘belonging to us’ [17] emphasising the community’s control of, and pride in, this service. Anyinginyi has always strived to be more than just a health service and has evolved to deliver many other community programmes. This is embodied by Anyinginyi’s insistence on ‘culturally appropriate’ healthcare for Aboriginal people. In addition to medical advice, the local Aboriginal community is offered support through various programmes that range from employment services to cultural and spiritual activities promoting Indigenous language and culture. One such social service is the ‘Piliyintinji-Ki Stronger Families’ initiative, which assists community members through access to support services relating to issues such as family violence and the Stolen Generations. [17] Indeed, ACCHS such as Anyinginyi have the additional benefit of providing employment opportunities for community members, as the vast majority of the employees are Indigenous. All new staff members participate in a Cross Cultural Workshop, as one of Anyinginyi’s goals is to ensure that the local Aboriginal cultures are respected and continue to thrive.

The other important arm of healthcare in ACCHS relates to population health, with initiatives ranging from education campaigns to immunisations and screening for diseases. [2] One of the first large-scale community health promotion campaigns run specifically for Aboriginal people was conducted by the Redfern AMS between 1983-1984 to encourage breast-feeding among the local Koori mothers. [11] It achieved such stunning success that it set a precedent for all future ACCHS to continue in the important area of preventative medicine, with similar campaigns for sexual health and safe alcohol consumption having been undertaken subsequently.

Moreover, each ACCHS runs special services that are dictated by local needs and priorities. In some instances, there is a specific health problem that needs to be addressed, such as poor nutrition or substance abuse. Other programmes are directed at specific groups, such as young mothers or the elderly. The flexibility of these special services allows each ACCHS to identify and address the most significant problems within its area – problems that can only be identified by the community itself. For example, the Danila Dilba Health Service in Darwin runs a programme called ‘Dare to Dream’ that provides support and counselling for young Indigenous people suffering from mental illness. [18] It is an early intervention programme that intends to identify and support adolescents exhibiting early signs of both behavioural and mental health problems. To this end, school visits are undertaken to promote awareness of mental health issues to students and staff, as well as the services that Danila Dilba has to offer. A ‘chillout’ centre has been set up in Darwin as a safe place for young people to come and allows the community workers to refer those who present to appropriate counselling services. As such, Danila Dilba is empowered to proactively address an important local issue in the most culturally-appropriate way.

ACCHS are also active in the area of advocacy. This involves providing a voice for the community so that their needs can be expressed. Although each ACCHS operates autonomously, they form a national network with their collective interests represented both on a state/territory level and also nationally. Each of the eight states and territories has a peak representative body that acts on behalf of all ACCHS within that jurisdiction. [2] Examples of these organisations include the Aboriginal Health & Medical Research Council of New South Wales and the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory. At the national level the umbrella body overseeing all the different stakeholders across the country is the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO). [2] Individual ACCHS, as well as NACCHO and the affiliated state or territory peak bodies, lobby all levels of government for increased funding and greater recognition of the issues facing Aboriginal communities. The collective weight of NACCHO as a national advocate allows each community’s needs to be heard.

Inevitably, the scope of the services each ACCHS can provide is restricted by funding, most of which comes from the Commonwealth or State and Territory Governments. [2] More money continues to be spent per capita on mainstream health services than on Aboriginal health, despite the great dichotomy in health outcomes. Indeed, the 2012 Indigenous Expenditure Report published figures showing that for every dollar spent on healthcare subsidies for non-Indigenous health, only $0.66 is spent on Aboriginal health. [19] This statistic covers all the key areas of healthcare expenditure, such as Medicare rebates, the pharmaceutical benefits scheme (PBS) and private health insurance rebates. Therefore, Indigenous patients are not receiving the same level of health service delivery, including clinical consultations and treatment, compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts. However, it is propitious to note that the funding bodies have recognised the value of the public health efforts of ACCHS, as the spending in this area is a $4.89 to $1.00 ratio in favour of Indigenous health. [19] Nevertheless, the priority needs to be placed on ensuring that sufficient funding exists to allow Indigenous patients to access health care subsidies as required.

In addition to inadequate funding, another major obstacle that ACCHS face is the difficulty in attracting and retaining doctors and allied health professionals. According to the AIHW’s most recent report, only 63% of Indigenous health services currently employ a doctor. [20] Consequently, a significant increase in the number of general practitioners working with Indigenous patients is required simply to provide adequate services. There is additionally a severe lack of Aboriginal medical students and general practitioners, which limits the opportunities for Indigenous professionals to provide culturally-appropriate care to their own communities. Census data from 2006 found that there were 106 Indigenous doctors nationally, accounting for only 0.19% of all medical practitioners. [21] These shortages are compounded further for ACCHS in rural and remote areas. By 2011, further data from Medical Deans demonstrated that the numbers had increased to 153 Indigenous medical practitioners nationally, along with 218 enrolled Indigenous medical students. Although promising, these numbers remain grossly inadequate to fulfil workforce demand. [22]

Services become stretched due to perpetual resource inadequacies. Understandably, the remoteness of some communities makes service delivery challenging, yet even major metropolitan areas with large Indigenous populations can struggle to adequately provide for those in their catchment area. Under-resourcing places major constraints on service delivery and different ACCHS throughout the country exhibit significant variation in the level of services offered. Some are large, employ several doctors and provide a wide range of services; others are much smaller and operate without doctors. [20] These rely on Aboriginal health workers and nurses to provide the bulk of primary healthcare.

As such, the success of the ACCHS concept would not have been possible without the contribution of Aboriginal health workers. The role of Aboriginal health workers, who are often sourced from the local community, is to provide the primary healthcare that ACCHS offer. [23] This involves assessing patients and then coordinating or providing the medical attention required. Health workers are able to treat certain conditions with the help of standard treatment guidelines and provide a selection of important medications to patients. Importantly, Aboriginal health workers have a liaison role between medical professionals and Aboriginal patients. They are often required to act as an interpreter between the patient and health professional, thus providing an intermediary for cross-cultural interactions, and therefore improving the quality of healthcare provided to the local community.

Due to the often quite remote locations of ACCHS and the scarcity of doctors and nurses, Aboriginal health workers perform many clinical tasks that would be provided by a medical professional in mainstream health services. Aboriginal health workers bear much greater responsibility than their colleagues in the public sector and often learn a wide range of procedural skills including how to perform standard health checks, vaccinations and venepuncture. [23] Indeed, some choose to specialise in a specific area (such as diabetes, pregnancy or infant care) thus gaining additional skills and responsibilities. Still others take on managerial responsibilities. This is in contrast to the public sector, where health workers are often fixed to one routine area or even to non-clinical work such as transportation or social assistance. [23] Without Aboriginal health workers performing these additional tasks, ACCHS would not be able to provide a sufficient level of service for the community. For this reason, Aboriginal health workers are rightly considered the backbone of community controlled health services.

As one example, the Pika Wiya Health Service in the South Australian town of Port Augusta runs two outreach clinics for communities in Copely and Nepabunna. Due to the shortage of doctors, these clinics are staffed entirely by Aboriginal health workers. Their invaluable contribution is evident, with 695 clinical encounters performed by health workers during 2008, [24] ensuring that the absence of doctors did not deny the local people the chance to receive healthcare. Whilst the major health issues faced by Indigenous people are broadly similar between urban and remote communities, these problems are often compounded by the remoteness of the location. Although these are challenges that Copely and Nepabunna will continue to have to face, the empowerment of Aboriginal health workers has helped redefine the direction of Pika Wiya’s outreach health services.

Aboriginal health workers face many difficulties. Perhaps the most significant is that, until recently, there had been no national qualifications or recognition of the skills they developed. [23] The introduction of national registration for Aboriginal health workers (from July 1 2012) and the new qualification of Certificate IV in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Primary Health Care (Practice) have revolutionised the industry. [25] This has had the benefit of standardising the quality and safety of the Aboriginal health worker labour force. However, as the changes will increase the required length and standard of training, there is the potential for current or prospective health workers to be deterred by the prospect of undertaking study at a tertiary level, particularly if they have had limited previous education. Nevertheless, national registration is a positive step for recognising the important work done by Aboriginal health workers, and in providing them with the training to continue serving their communities.

In addition to doctors, nurses and health workers, medical students are also important stakeholders in Indigenous health. First, much has been done in recent years to increase the numbers of Indigenous medical students. For example, the University of Newcastle has been the first medical school to make a dedicated attempt at training Indigenous doctors and has produced approximately 60% of Australia’s Indigenous medical practitioners. [26] This achievement has been based on a “strong focus on community, equity and engagement by the medical profession.” [26] Encouraging community members to enter the profession can be an important way of addressing both the lack of doctors in Indigenous communities and paucity of doctors of Indigenous background. The benefits are broader than this, as Indigenous doctors provide strong role models for young Indigenous people and also have the opportunity to contribute with advocacy and leadership within Indigenous health.

Secondly, the medical student population as a whole is exposed to increasingly more Indigenous health as part of the core curriculum at university following adoption of the updated Australian Medical Council accreditation standards from 2007. [27] Additionally, some students even have the opportunity to spend time in an ACCHS and experience first-hand how the system works. There has been some criticism of these ‘fly in, fly out’ medical electives, where students are sent to ACCHS for short periods and then leave. [28] Whilst this model may be beneficial for the student, it fails to engage the local community as they are unable to build meaningful or lasting relationships with the student.

Better models allow for a longer-term placement and immersion in the community. These include the John Flynn Placement Programme where some students are able to spend a fortnight annually in an ACCHS in the Northern Territory over a period of four years. [29] Another example is the Northern Territory Clinical School, which allows third-year medical students from Flinders University to spend a whole year of study in Darwin, providing the opportunity for increased contact with local Indigenous communities. [30] Initiatives such as these help to build a relationship with the community, and allows for increased acceptance of the medical student. Additionally, the student is able to make a more meaningful contribution to various client’s healthcare. Prolonged or longitudinal attachments have also been shown to increase the likelihood of students returning as a doctor. [31] Certainly, there is much scope for the contribution of medical students to be harnessed more effectively.

It is abundantly apparent that any solution to address the health inequalities of Aboriginal people will only be effective if it recognises that the local Aboriginal communities must control the process of healthcare delivery. This is the principle upon which ACCHS were founded and can be attributed to their many successes, as demonstrated through the examples of Redfern’s AMS, Inala, Anyinginyi, Danila Dilba and Pika Wiya. In spite of the challenges posed by inadequate funding, under-staffing and often remote locations, these organisations strive to uphold the ideals of self-determination and community control. It is hoped that wider adoption of these principles by national governing bodies together with improved financial support will enable Indigenous Australians control over their lives and destinies, leading to better health outcomes.

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NACCHO smoking health news: How will we close the gap in smoking rates for pregnant Indigenous women?

Megan E Passey, BMed(Hons), MPH, MSc, Deputy Director — Research1

Jamie Bryant, PhD, BPsych(Hons), ARC Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Medicine and Public Health2
Alix E Hall, BPsych(Hons), PhD Candidate, Priority Research Centre for Health Behaviour2
Robert W Sanson-Fisher, PhD, ClinMPsych, BPsych(Hons), Laureate Professor of Health Behaviour, School of Medicine and Public Health2
1 University Centre for Rural Health — North Coast, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW.
2 University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NSW.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are more than three times more likely to smoke during pregnancy than non-Indigenous women, greatly increasing the risk of poor birth outcomes.

  • Our systematic review found that there is currently no evidence for interventions that are effective in supporting pregnant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to quit smoking, which impedes development and implementation of evidence-informed policy and practice.

  • There is an urgent need for methodologically rigorous studies to test innovative approaches to addressing this problem.

Antenatal smoking is the most important modifiable cause of adverse pregnancy outcomes.1 Indigenous Australian women are more than three times more likely to smoke during pregnancy than non-Indigenous women.2 As a result, adverse outcomes are more frequent in Indigenous than non-Indigenous babies, with smoking as an independent risk factor.3

Reviews of antenatal smoking interventions have shown effective cessation strategies for pregnant women.1 However, persistently high rates of smoking during pregnancy among Indigenous women suggest that current interventions have had limited impact. Finding ways to effectively reduce smoking in pregnant Indigenous populations is a high priority. Previous systematic reviews have examined smoking cessation interventions for Indigenous peoples; however, none has specifically investigated smoking cessation among pregnant Indigenous women.4,5

We undertook a systematic review to examine the effectiveness and methodological quality of smoking cessation interventions targeting pregnant Indigenous women. In December 2012 we searched MEDLINE, PsycINFO, CINAHL (Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature) and Cochrane databases with appropriate search terms, and checked reference lists of retrieved articles. Papers were included if they reported a smoking cessation intervention aimed at pregnant Indigenous women, included a control group and provided cessation results specifically for pregnant Indigenous women. Only peer-reviewed, English-language papers were included. We extracted data and assessed methodological quality against Effective Practice and Organisation of Care quality criteria.6

Of 59 identified papers only two met eligibility criteria: one from the United States with Alaskan Native women,7 and one from Australia with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.8 Both involved culturally tailored interventions specifically developed for the target group, and used face-to-face counselling, structured follow-up, attempts to involve family members and nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). Both studies found no treatment effect and had a number of limitations (Box).

This lack of evidence of effective smoking cessation interventions for pregnant Indigenous women prevents implementation of evidence-based programs and highlights a critical need for methodologically rigorous testing of possible strategies.

What interventions should we test?

Evidence from research with Indigenous populations, and with pregnant women generally, provides guidance about the strategies that hold promise for pregnant Indigenous women. These strategies are outlined as follows.

Tailor interventions to local culture

Interventions for Indigenous people need to be culturally secure and locally tailored in order to increase acceptability and accessibility.4,5,9 Involving local people in developing and tailoring intervention resources to the local context is critical for improving cultural appropriateness, building ownership and enhancing a sense of autonomy, all of which are important in successful cessation.10

Include routine assessment and support

Smoking cessation guidelines for pregnant women recommend a systematic approach to cessation where every woman is asked about her smoking status, with smokers followed up and supported to quit in a respectful manner.11 Health professionals may be reluctant to repeatedly assess smoking status due to concerns that it may be deleterious to their relationship with women and the women’s engagement with care.9,1214 However, most Indigenous women expect antenatal care to include smoking cessation advice.15 Systems to support routine assessment and support should be included in intervention trials.

Provide relevant information

Indigenous women’s knowledge of specific risks of smoking while pregnant is often vague.9,15,16 Providing information on the harms of smoking and benefits of cessation may motivate some women to attempt to quit. Discussing the woman’s role as a mother and a role model for her family may be more motivating for some Indigenous women than health risk narratives and should be addressed in intervention trials.

Deliver cessation support through all antenatal providers

Overall, 78% of Indigenous women attend five or more antenatal visits during their pregnancies.2 Providing cessation support through routine antenatal care overcomes barriers to attending separate services.13 A collaborative approach between midwives, Aboriginal Health Workers (AHWs) and doctors, all providing consistent advice and support, will reinforce the importance of cessation. The credibility of medical practitioners may be a significant motivating factor for some women. In cases where midwives provide much of the care, the close relationship and frequent contact allows ongoing support. AHWs’ cultural knowledge and strong links with local families will enhance implementation of cessation support.14 In a survey of Indigenous women, over 70% of women felt that support from these professionals was likely to be helpful.17

Involve other members of the community

The high prevalence of smoking in Indigenous communities has resulted in smoking being “normalised” as a socially acceptable behaviour, with frequent triggers to smoke and cigarettes being readily available.9,16,18 Smoking is important in social relationships, and cessation can lead to feelings of isolation.18,19 Supportive environments for quitting have aided cessation among Indigenous ex-smokers.10 Trialling interventions that incorporate mechanisms to provide a supportive, pro-cessation environment, such as involving household members in supporting women, peer support groups and whole community interventions should be further explored.20

Address relapse

Interventions that incorporate strategies to prevent smoking relapse result in fewer women relapsing in late pregnancy.1 Up to 80% of women who quit during pregnancy relapse within 1 year.21 Specific relapse prevention support should be provided during pregnancy and postpartum, including information about the effects of environmental tobacco smoke on the baby, support to make a smoke-free home and support for household members to quit smoking.21 Relapse prevention strategies have not been examined among Indigenous women and should be included in future trials.

Use contingency-based financial rewards

Systematic reviews of antenatal smoking cessation interventions have found that financial rewards contingent on successful smoking abstinence are significantly more effective than other interventions.1 However, their efficacy with Indigenous women has not been tested. Australian surveys indicate that contingency-based rewards are considered likely to be helpful by over 90% of Indigenous women and 83% of their antenatal providers.17,22 This approach should be further explored with Indigenous women.

Other substances

Surveys of pregnant Indigenous women found that tobacco smokers were more than three times more likely than non-smokers to report cannabis or alcohol use, both of which are risk factors for continued smoking.17 Given the known negative impact of these substances on birth outcomes and the interaction between their use and use of tobacco, interventions should include explicit assessment of other substance use, with support to address these if required.11

Training providers

A lack of protocols and poor smoking cessation support skills have been identified as barriers to providing cessation support to pregnant Indigenous women.12 Well defined protocols detailing specific procedures, and the role of each provider, may assist in increasing provision of support in routine care.13 Training should cover skills in smoking cessation support, supportive communication and using protocols, as well as recording women’s smoking status, cessation behaviour and support provided, to facilitate consistent advice from all team members.

Possible challenges

Conducting complex behavioural intervention trials is difficult. Potential challenges include:

Random allocation

As smoking cessation support is provided at both the service and individual level, randomisation at the individual level is inappropriate as contamination between groups is likely. Cluster randomised controlled trials with randomisation of dispersed services may reduce this problem but require larger sample sizes and more participating services, increasing costs and logistics challenges. As services and communities may not be willing to be randomly allocated to “usual care”, it may be more appropriate to undertake a head-to-head comparison of two approaches considered likely to be effective.23

Adherence to protocols

Poor adherence to intervention protocols may occur as a result of unsuitable intervention requirements, inadequate staff training, high staff turnover and lack of systems to support the intervention. Smoking among AHWs has also been identified as a potential barrier to implementation and would need to be addressed as part of the intervention.14,16 Strong organisational support for the implementation and evaluation of strategies is critical to supporting adherence. Collaborative development of the intervention and study design with Indigenous services and pilot studies to assess acceptability and feasibility of the research will help successful implementation.


Given the importance of finding effective strategies to decrease smoking among pregnant Indigenous women, and the current lack of evidence to guide this process, there is an urgent need for rigorous studies to test innovative approaches. While there are many challenges in this research, these may be managed with existing methods for testing complex interventions in diverse settings.24 Without an evidence base, we risk implementing ineffective strategies, failing to improve outcomes and wasting scarce resources.

NACCHO health awards:Unique trial of a smoking intervention for pregnant Aboriginal women is the winner National Prize for Excellence


Dr Mark Wenitong, Senior Medical Officer at the Apunipima Cape York Health Council and Part time PHMO at NACCHO pictured bottom left one of the team

A UNIQUE trial of a smoking intervention for pregnant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is the winner of the 2013 MJA, MDA National Prize for Excellence in Medical Research, for the best research paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia in the previous calendar year.

Entitled “An intensive smoking intervention for pregnant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women: a randomised controlled trial”, the winning paper was authored by Sandra Eades, head of the Indigenous Maternal and Child Health Research Program at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne; Rob Sanson-Fisher, Laureate Professor of Health Behaviour at the University of Newcastle; Mark Wenitong, Senior Medical Officer at the Apunipima Cape York Health Council in Cairns; Katie Panaretto, Population Health Medical Officer at the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council in Brisbane; Catherine D’Este, Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Newcastle; Conor Gilligan, lecturer at the University of Newcastle; and Jessica Stewart, a PhD student at the University of Newcastle.

Smoking rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are high and a particular problem is the prevalence of smoking during pregnancy, which is thought to be about 50%.

In this trial — the first of its kind — 263 women attending their first antenatal visit at one of three Aboriginal community-controlled health services were randomly allocated to two pathways.

The intervention group was invited to participate in a program of tailored advice and ongoing support to quit smoking, delivered by a general practitioner and other health care workers.

The “usual care” group received standard advice and support from the GP at scheduled antenatal visits.

There was a high uptake of the intervention by the women to whom it was offered but this was a “negative study” in the sense that smoking rates remained high at 36 weeks of pregnancy — 89% in the intervention group and 95% in the usual care group — a difference that was not statistically significant.

This was in some ways a disappointing outcome, especially as it came on the back of extensive background research and a unique collaboration by this group of researchers from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, the University of Newcastle, the Apunipima Cape York Health Council and the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council.

However, the judges from the MJA’s Content Review Committee recognised that this research, conducted with robust and transparent methodology in a difficult real-world setting, contributes to the very important endeavour of improving the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children.

Sponsored by MDA National, this prize awards the authors a cash prize of $10 000.

Empowering Aboriginal children to lead a healthy lifestyle: ACCH and Uni partnership



The project

Many Rivers Diabetes Prevention Project (MRDPP) is a 10-year research and health promotion partnership between Biripi Aboriginal Corporation Medical Service (ACMS) in Taree, Durri ACMS in Kempsey and the University of Newcastle.


A University of Newcastle research project will use social marketing, traditional Indigenous games and a photography project as part of a multi-faceted approach to improve the health of young Aboriginal people living in rural areas.

The Dharma Burra Nyinhi (Eat Strong Live Long) project, funded by the Department of Health and Ageing, will be delivered by the Many Rivers Diabetes Prevention Project (MRDPP), a 10-year research and health promotion partnership between Biripi Aboriginal Corporation Medical Service (ACMS) in Taree, Durri ACMS in Kempsey and the University of Newcastle.

University researcher, Dr Josephine Gwynn, said the project would deliver strategies to address the findings of the MRDPP.

“Research by the MRDPP shows that, consistent with the general population, young Aboriginal people consume excessively high amounts of poor quality foods such as hot chips, white bread and sugary drinks.

“In the context of the high burden of chronic disease and reduced life expectancy for Aboriginal people, this finding is of major concern. However the good news is that this group demonstrates relatively higher levels of physical activity than their non-Indigenous counterparts around the ages of 10 to 12 years.

“Our project will implement a social marketing and health promotion campaign to encourage healthier food choices by young Aboriginal people and support their higher physical activity levels, which, as in the wider population, tend to decline as they become older.”

The research team will communicate results through local papers, councils, schools and radio; explore working with local stores to promote healthy food choices; and share information with parents through a Facebook page. Schools with high Aboriginal enrolment will also be given boxes of fruit each week, support will be provided to canteens to provide healthy food choices, and the research team will present educational talks with a specific focus on type 2 diabetes, which is present at high rates amongst Aboriginal Australians.

Physical activity will be encouraged through Indigenous games in schools and a ‘photo voice project’ where Aboriginal children will be encouraged to photograph activities they enjoy and barriers they perceive.

“The discussion and materials generated by the photographs will be used to create local posters to encourage young Aboriginal people to maintain their physical activity levels, and to inform local physical activity programs,” Dr Gwynn said.

Dr Josephine Gwynn is affiliated with the University of Newcastle’s Priority Research Centre for Health Behaviour and the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health (CRRMH). HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.

For interviews with Dr Josephine Gwynn: Carmen Swadling, Media and Public Relations at the University of Newcastle, on 02 4985 4276 or 0428 038477.